Many modern works of cyberpunk remember to lather their films, shows, games and anime with cybernetics, but they forget the key element of cyberpunk: punk. The core appeal of cyberpunk to audiences in the '80s was that it highlighted how technology failed to make life better. In fact, it often made things worse. The original works of cyberpunk centered around hackers and "street samurai" who were able to navigate the seedy underbelly of a world controlled by big business and computers.
While there are brilliant works of cyberpunk fiction, many high-profile works from the last five years use the style of cyberpunk without its substance. For instance, Cyberpunk 2077 exists as a complete antithesis to the themes introduced in works like William Gibson's Neuromancer -- a fact Gibson himself has commented on -- but why does modern cyberpunk lack bite?
While themes similar to the ones seen in the cyberpunk genre were touched on beforehand, the movement took off thanks to a combination of two works of fiction: Blade Runner -- Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- and the works of Gibson, most notably his novel Neuromancer and his short stories originally published in OMNI magazine, which were later collected in Burning Chrome.
At its heart, cyberpunk questioned the authorities, as seen with Deckard in Blade Runner. He's a cop, but the "people" he's hunting are being persecuted for the crime of wanting to live. Meanwhile, Henry Chase in Neuromancer is an expert hacker whose skills have resulted in physical pain. He's strung along by authorities in a series of events that uncover the sheer mechanical structures of the Sprawl. In both cases, authority is often corrupt, humanity is a commodity, and technology is more a burden than a benefit.
What Makes Cyberpunk Punk?
From these works, the components of cyberpunk proliferated, taking numerous forms over the years in all all forms of entertainment. Throughout it all, cyberpunk existed as a "punk" genre, going against mainstream institutions and ideologies.
Many works, such as Akira, Judge Dredd, Robocop and The Matrix, showcase dystopian societies where technology makes things worse; however, Dominion Tank Police takes this to an extreme by showing police as rogue agents who cause more damage than criminals. Other works, such as Total Recall, Battle Angel Alita, Ghost in the Shell and Tetsuo the Iron Man, focus on how mechanization alters human nature.
Many early works also push against societal standards and speak to disenfranchised communities. For example, novels like Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott showcase a cast of LGBT characters in an oppressive, cyberpunk society. Meanwhile, The Matrix has a nuanced metaphor for the trans experience. These works counter heteronormative ideology in order to deconstruct society's systems of control.
Modern Cyberpunk Forgets To Hold Systems Accountable
While many works during the '80s and '90s focus on corrupt businesses, crooked cops and bought-out governments, this depiction comes with problems. Many works of cyberpunk emphasize that the corruption in society comes from other countries, as Japanese businesses are depicted as dangerous, foreign entities that will buy out American businesses.
At the same time, many cyberpunk works shy away from attacking authority figures as a unit. There are corrupt individuals, but the system, in theory, could work. The anime Bubblegum Crisis has the A.D. Police as a flawed but necessary system to protect humanity. Even Ghost in the Shell, one of the greatest cyberpunk anime films made, presents Section 9 as well intentioned authority figures who are put at odds due to the corrupt bureaucracy around them. While these works are very much cyber, they lack the punk other works featured.
Arguably worst of all, many cyberpunk stories take the aesthetics of cyberpunk to tell fun stories without the critique, as seen in films like Hardware, Freejack and Armitage III. Meanwhile, the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is rightfully beloved by cyberpunk enthusiasts, but it helped set in motion a new trend, which is more cyber and less punk, and this would only grow worse in the following years.
Modern Cyberpunk's Style Problem
The last decade saw a resurgence of cyberpunk fiction, yet most of it lacks in social criticism. Some works are punk, like Blade Runner 2049 and Netflix's Altered Carbon, which scrutinizes authority and human nature. Alita: Battle Angel also shows a world where the rich literally live in a floating paradise above the poor. Furthermore, Ex Machina and the game SOMA deconstruct human nature in a minimalist manner, but these are the exceptions.
The big issue is that many cyberpunk works fetishize technology rather than show how it fails to improve life. Works like Ready Player One, both the novel by Ernest Cline and its film adaptation, as well as Sword Art Online, celebrate the systems of control that bind people. Despite the world of Ready Player One and its sequel being an impoverished nightmare, the work focuses on how cool virtual reality is rather than meaningfully scrutinize society. Other works, like Upgrade and Hardcore Henry, use cyberpunk tech as a vehicle for action. Even Ghost in the Shell's live-action film and SAC_2049 feel shallow.
Cyberpunk 2077 Onward
These works are almost innocent compared to cyberpunk works that, in the most un-punk move of all, reinforce systems of authority. Works like Continuum, Detroit: Become Human, EX-ARM and Cyberpunk 2077 present cyberpunk worlds where big business, the police and systems of government are supported.
Continuum focuses on a good cop chasing bad terrorists through time. Detroit: Become Human focuses on androids as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, but the story places the blame on bad people rather than bad systems. Finally, Cyberpunk 2077, in a move that inverts the messages of Neuromancer and Blade Runner, focuses on the main character helping cops catch criminals. The game even promotes heteronormative ideology rather than oppose it, and there is nothing punk about that.
These works encourage following the rules rather than fighting them. There are good works of cyberpunk out there, but the problem is that the sea of superficial cyberpunk keeps getting deeper. The mass rejection of Cyberpunk 2077's brand of cyberpunk might encourage creators to put the punk back in the genre -- or else cyberpunk will rot into the establishment.